Leverage styles when communicating change

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An understanding of human psychology can be a powerful tool for anyone in leadership. While there are many theories and tools in this realm, one of the most useful categories of tools deals with personality.

Since as early as 444 B.C., observers of human nature have noticed that there are four primary personality styles. In ancient times, philosophers used the terms choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic to describe the differences they saw in people’s approaches and behaviors.

In the late 1930s, Dr. William Moulton Marston observed that people generally behaved in one of four ways:

1. Some people were forceful, direct, and results-oriented.

2. Some people were optimistic, fun, and talkative.

3. Some people were steady, patient, and relaxed.

4. Some people were precise, accurate, and detail-oriented.

Researchers building on Marston’s work later developed a model now known as “DISC” to explain and describe these four main styles of behavior. While the names of each category may differ according to each researcher, all use DISC as the easy-to-remember acronym.

Driving Style = Forceful, Ambitious, Decisive, Challenging, Direct, and Independent

Influencing Style = Expressive, Enthusiastic, Friendly, Demonstrative, and Talkative

Steady Style = Systematic, Methodological, Reliable, Relaxed, and Modest

Careful Style = Analytical, Conservative, Exacting, Cautious, and Deliberate

The developers of DISC found that people normally had characteristics of two or three of these styles, but one behavior stood out above all the rest. This is commonly referred to as one’s predominant style.

An understanding of styles can be a powerful advantage in communicating change and building a base of support. To understand this, it is helpful to understand how people with each style react to change.

People with the Driving Style thrive on shaking things up and are often the people who initiate change.

Those who prefer the Influencing Style are quick to support change when their opinions are sought. They relish opportunities to act as catalysts and to engage others.

People who prefer a Steady Style are much less likely to commit to a change at the outset. As a whole, they prefer incremental change. When you propose a change, these folks will show little or no reaction at first. They are watching other people’s reactions and weighing the proposed solution.

Finally, people who gravitate toward the Careful Style are skeptical. They will want to see compelling reasons (data) for the change and they will be slow to support change unless they agree that there is a significant problem and a well-thought-out solution.

In a common scenario, a leader will announce a change and hope everyone in the organization will quickly support the effort. Instead, the announcement is usually followed by uneasy silence. Next, the people who prefer a Careful Style will jump in and start to poke holes into the plans. Their talent for logical thinking and need for precision translates into doubt and skepticism. Most leaders naturally respond defensively. Often they find themselves going down a rabbit hole as deeper issues are uncovered. When it becomes clear that the leader doesn’t have the answers to all of the questions, the group concludes that the change is too risky and balks at moving forward.

Instead of falling into the trap described above, leaders can take a page from Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s book focuses on how great ideas are propelled forward when key people (connectors) show their support and influence enough other people to “tip” public opinion.

In the example we saw above, the change effort stalled out due to a lack of support. What would have happened if the leader could have used the tipping point technique? Instead of taking time out to address all of the Careful people’s questions, the leader could have focused on asking the Influencers to connect and communicate with the Steady Style team members. With the Driving, Influencing, and Steady types in agreement, the numbers would tip far in favor of the initiative.

This approach doesn’t mean you should ignore the Careful people’s concerns. People with the Careful style help us avoid taking on too much risk and making premature decisions. The key is to leverage the talent of this segment of your workforce. You need this group’s attention to detail to find the holes in a plan and mitigate them. You just don’t want to allow this group’s skepticism to stall an effort before it begins.

Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author specializing in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at wendy@wendymack.com.